Monday night’s game between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans is as star-studded as an NFL game can be. Houston’s Andre Johnson (left) and Arian Foster are two of the league’s best skill players at their respective positions, while Tom Brady and Wes Welker lead the list of New England’s marquee players. In addition, the teams are battling it out for seeding atop the AFC. Take a look at some of the key matchups for Monday night’s game, and vote for the team you think has the edge.
Matt Schaub vs. the Patriots secondary
Matt Schaub’s injury last season likely cost his team a shot at the AFC title, but the Texans quarterback is back and having a great year. Schaub has thrown for 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions this season. The Patriots haven’t faced a quarterback of his caliber since beating Peyton Manning in Week 5. An opportunistic New England defense good at creating turnovers must now try to do the same against a quarterback who will make that much more difficult.
Patriots offensive line vs. J.J. Watt
In his second season,Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has 16.5 sacks. Another wrinkle: Watt has batted down 15 passes at the line. The Patriots prepared for Watt’s disruptive arms by using rackets at practice this week, but Tom Brady will need to be aware when he looks for his receivers. New England’s offensive line has been good this season despite giving up four sacks vs. Miami last week. They could get a boost if guard Logan Mankins returns to the field. This matchup could very well be the key to the game.
Andre Johnson vs. Patriots secondary
Just as the Patriots appear to have an advantage vs. a weak Texans secondary, Houston faces a New England secondary that is the team’s weakness. Wide receiver Andre Johnson (pictured) is one of the league’s best, and the Patriots don’t have a player who matches up with him directly. New England may elect to double Johnson (it worked against Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the season), but either way they need to be aware of the Texans playmaker.
Tom Brady vs. Houston’s secondary
This is one area where the Patriots could have a big advantage. The Texans are banged up: All-Pro linebacker Brian Cushing is on injured reserve, along with cornerback Brian McCain. Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, although he returned to practice and is listed as probable to play. Reserve Alan Ball was out last week with a foot injury and he’s questionable this week. All of this adds up very favorably for Tom Brady (pictured), who should be looking at his receivers in space Monday night. Provided Brady has time to throw, he could carve up the Houston defense.
Arian Foster vs. the Patriots linebackers
Maybe the most dangerous aspect of the Texans offense is their balance. Arian Foster (pictured) may be the league’s best running back. The Patriots are built to be good against the run, with Brandon Spikes establishing himself as one of the league’s best run-stuffers. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo was teammates with Foster at the University of Tennessee. How his unit performs against Foster will be crucial. The Patriots have only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season — Baltimore’s Ray Rice in Week 3.
Bill Belichick vs. Gary Kubiak
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (left) likes to keep teams guessing. Without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, you still don’t know where the bulk of the Patriots offense is going to come from. On the other side, Houston’s Gary Kubiak figures to go to his strengths, employing quarterback Matt Schaub, receiver Andre Johnson, and running back Arian Foster against a New England defense that struggles against good quarterback play. Can Belichick devise schemes to keep the Texans from moving the ball? Can Kubiak get pressure on Tom Brady? Should be a fascinating coaching matchup this week.
Special teams vs. special teams
Texans rookie punt-returner Keshawn Martin is fourth in the league in punt-return average at 14.3 yards. The Patriots just lost their primary punt returner, Julian Edelman. Patriots placekicker Stephen Gostkowski has struggled at times this season. If the game comes down to a big kick, Patriots fans aren’t likely to be confident. Overall, however, the Patriots excel on special teams. Punter Zoltan Mesko is dominant at times, and special teams captain Matthew Slater leads the team with 17 tackles on that unit.
Wes Welker vs. Houston’s defense
We already touched on Houston’s banged-up secondary, but the real stumbling block for Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (pictured) might be the play of the Texans’ defensive line. Houston excels at batting down balls in the air, which could wreak havoc on the short passes Welker is so good at catching. Welker may be open, but it will be interesting to see if Tom Brady can get him the ball. In addition, Welker tore his ACL the last time he faced the Texans, which could be in the back of his mind.
Stevan Ridley vs. Houston’s defensive line
Stevan Ridley may be a huge key for the Patriots in breaking up a tough Texans defense. If the Patriots can run the ball effectively, Watt and the rest of Houston’s defensive line won’t be able to sit on passes. Ridley topped 1,000 yards for the season vs Miami last week, and he was instrumental on New England’s clock-killing final drive in that game. The Patriots may need to play a bit of possession football Monday night, and Ridley’s ablity to gain yards — and hold onto the ball — will be keys.